When Staff Sgt. Dennis Robinson left the Army after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he couldn't wait to get back home to Baltimore to resume civilian life and earn his master's and law degrees.
But even as he reestablished his identity, Robinson realized something vital was missing.
"I found I was lacking the things I liked about the military: the camaraderie, the talking to guys about the things only we understand," said Robinson, 28.
To fill the void, he began volunteering for veterans groups, where he found others with similar yearnings. A chance meeting with the secretary of Maryland's Veterans Affairs a few months ago led to a job at the Department of Natural Resources as the head of its new Veterans Project.
His objective, he said a few days before Veterans Day, is two-fold. First, Robinson urges vets and their families to take advantage of the state's outdoors opportunities through fishing trips and other activities. From there, he hopes to steer interested vets toward careers in natural resources through internships with the Fisheries Service, state parks and hunting programs.
"No pun intended, but we're trying to use the [fishing trips] as bait to lure these veterans in to show them that it's a lot of fun to go out on the water and fish, but there's possible employment in it, too," Robinson said. "I'm not a therapist, but I can tell you that veterans have come up to me and said how much they appreciated a chance to be on the water and talk to fellow veterans. For some of us, we haven't had the time to do this since we got out."
In all, 35 trips have been scheduled. Charter captains will be taking veterans out until the season ends in December. The next trip will be for women veterans and the wives of servicemen.
Then, Robinson hopes to turn the vets loose in state parks on trail restoration projects.
Already, three veterans have seized the opportunity, helping biologists take water samples for the tidal bass program and assisting on surveys of the state's ambitious artificial reef program in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
The working budget of $200,000 was patched together with money from the Fisheries Service, Wildlife and Heritage Service and Maryland State Parks. DNR Secretary John Griffin said it's money well spent.
"Frankly, we are the fortunate ones — being able to help our veterans and their families spend time outdoors, together, is very rewarding for all of us involved," he said.
Robinson started work in late August but almost immediately hit a roadblock.
"There's not really a button I could press and all of the sudden all of the vets know about these fishing trips," he said. "Fifty percent of veterans don't sign up for benefits, so I had no real avenue."
The Department of Veterans Affairs helped Robinson get the word out on the National Guard website and informal networks at Fort Meade augmented the outreach. Now, the program involves Maryland National Guard, Fort Meade Warrior Transition Unit, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Forbes Hall Veterans Home, Baltimore Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center and veterans groups at 15 colleges and universities.
"Our goal is to have a healthy mix of veterans from all generations," Robinson said. "Our guys now are going through what older vets did. There's a lot of wisdom there to tap."
The program is running on a shoestring that has a beginning and end. To cover operational expenses, Robinson will be looking for help from the General Assembly when it meets next year and federal grants steered his way by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Robinson said the connection between veterans and the outdoors runs deep.
"Growing up in Baltimore, my fishing experience was limited to hanging chicken on a string off Hull Street pier in Locust Point to catch crabs," he said, laughing. "But I understand how vets love to fish and will take any opportunity to do it. You're on God's water and you're with a group of folks you can trust."